I felt very familiar with death during my childhood. The final one that capped off two decades of regular diagnoses and deaths of close family members was that of my aunt, Mary P, who felt like a lot more than just an aunt; she did a lot of mothering of me.
I was talking to a friend a while ago about the nature of grief, and Mary P’s death came up. My friend asked if I thought I’d dealt with the grief of it all at the time. “I think I did,” I said, but at the same time I’m not really sure.
We have very strong traditions around death at home. The open coffin, the wake, the funeral. The body in the ground within a couple of days. There’s an openness and intimacy to the whole thing. It’s an intense experience but very cathartic too. Our traditions only carry us through the first few days and weeks though. After that it can be a different story.
My family, like many of the families I know from home, are not the best at talking about emotions on an ongoing basis. We’re great in a crisis, we know how to come together in action, how to put on a wake, but as life returns to ‘normal’ disconnection can creep in.
The culture I grew up in is one used to crises and atrocities. Well-versed in how to respond in the immediate aftermath of harrowing events and unending pain. But it’s a culture unpractised in sitting with pain and really feeling it. After all the activity of the initial response, the ‘You just have to get on with it’ mantra steals in, leaving many in a lonely place.
The Good Friday agreement brought peace to Northern Ireland in 1998. Since the signing of that agreement more people have died by suicide in Northern Ireland than were killed in the violence of the Troubles between 1969 and 1997.
An estimated 3,600 people died during the Troubles. Over 4,500 people have died by suicide since 1998. When you consider Northern Ireland has a population similar to that of the state of Nebraska and a land area similar to that of the state of Maryland, you can begin to understand the scale of the trauma these numbers represent. Many of those who are taking their own lives are the ‘ceasefire babies’ – those born after the main conflict was over.
Virginia Satir was an author and therapist and is regarded as ‘the mother of Family Therapy’. Her work explains that a family system is a lot like a mobile that hangs over an infant’s cot. Each piece is an individual that can move freely, yet all the pieces are interconnected. When you touch one piece to make it move, all the other pieces move a little too.
When a family member suffers some traumatic event, the other members of the family are also affected. This idea extends to the culture too. A community or country is just a macro family system. What affects some of us directly, affects all of us indirectly. And the trauma is passed from generation to generation unless it is spoken and addressed. Maybe your work is a part of that process. The person who suffers the direct trauma is not necessarily the one who processes the pain of it.